Freedom News

Interviews with anarchists concerning the Yellow Vests movement

What follows is an edited version of a brochure written in French and translated into several languages. The brochure is available here.  To aid readability in web format I have changed the structure somewhat but the words and ideas remain the same.

The text is comprised of a series of interviews conducted mainly by email between anarchists based in the Parisian suburbs, Dijon, Caen and Toulouse and comrades in Brazil. The idea for the brochure originated in the initiative of a Brazilian anarchist magazine, Crônica Subversiva, from Porto Alegre.

Whilst working on this I couldn’t help but compare the French Gilet Jaunes with the Extinction Rebellion movement. Both consist of a decentralised mass movement that has gained enormous traction in a relatively short period of time, with a large portion of its members taking part in a political struggle for the first time. But the similarities end there; whereas the GJs are largely working class, distrusting of existing political structures, talk of the “convergence of struggles”, don’t fear offensive tactics as a tool and have become sensitised to the subject of police violence (if they weren’t already), XR remains criticable in it’s attempts to appeal to neo-liberal politics and banalisation of state violence (although after recent events in London a lot of peoples opinions will no doubt have changed). Personally I have noticed worryingly little acknowledgement of other social struggles and attempts at solidarity with non able-bodied middle class, white folks for whom being willingly arrested is not an option. I feel that XR activists in the UK have a lot to learn from the Gilet Jaunes experience, that’s basically why I wanted to publish this – enjoy!

The interviewees and dates of interviews are:
– T, an anarchist from the Paris suburbs, February 1-11
– E&L, two anarchists from Toulouse, February 19
– A, an anarchist from the Paris suburbs, March 9
– J, from Dijon, March 21st
– R&R, two anarchists from Caen, April 2nd

We think that, as anarchists, it is crucial that we ask ourselves certain questions, especially that of our role among social movements. How can we take part in a movement without renouncing our convictions? Without becoming a revolutionary avant-garde? How can we share and spread our ideas towards people who, at first sight have entirely differing world views, in some cases contradictory even to ours? Is creating chaos our only objective?

Enkapuzado: First of all, could you explain to us how the Yellow Vests movement was born? And at first sight, what was the reaction of (the) anarchist movement(s) in relation to the social movement?

T: The movement first started in October 2018 on the Internet, in “social media”, following the rise of gas prices. The first few people who initiated the movement didn’t know each other, and did not come from militant/activist circles/backgrounds. The movement became consistent following the first occupations of roundabouts and the first turbulent gatherings on the Champs-Elysées, in Paris, on November 17 2018, which took on a unique shape and displayed distrust and even hostility towards [political] parties. From the very first day, this movement gathered very different people, politically and socially. And very quickly, the question of taxes and the rise in gas prices was bypassed: this primary demand seemed secondary compared to the generalized anger. Finally, since the beginning of the movement, only one slogan is unanimous during the big days of mobilization (the famous weekly “Acts” that started on November 17): “Macron resign”. First of all, with its initial focus on the question of taxes and based on the fact that it regrouped people from opposing political strands, the Yellow Vests movement inspired both suspicion and enthusiasm from anarchists. Some of them actively participated in the movement from the first day, while others still refuse to do so. Similarly to the anarchist movement, maybe even more so than in “normal” times, there is no common position gathering all trends/tendencies.

A: The Gilets Jaunes movement was first born in reaction to the dramatic increase in the price of petrol at the gas station. This piled up on top of the explosion in the number of speed cameras, on ever-more frequent traffic-related fines when the Macron administration lowered the speed limitation on non-highway roads from 90km/h down to 80 in July 2018, and on the scandal of the French highways. In the 1970s, the state subsidized the construction of these highways through a public-private partnership with Vinci and other companies. Basically, the French “tax dollars” (francs back then) paid for a part of the works and once the investment was recuperated for these industry giants the tolls were supposed to disappear. And the complete opposite happened: in 1995 the Jospin administration sold the highways to these big companies and inserted terms in the contract that bound them with the state, an annual increase in toll prices even stronger than inflation.

It’s no wonder this movement was born on the roundabouts: it was first a movement of people who lived outside of the cities and for whom driving their car is a huge portion of their expenses.

E&L: In the Toulouse region, it [the movement] was made concrete through a daily presence on roundabouts around the city and at toll booths. The first Saturday demonstrations started after two weeks. For us, it was a bit hard in the beginning to know where to stand and seize the opportunity, because of a wide and blurry political spectrum, including nationalistic claims (such as closing borders or even reporting migrants on a roundabout in the North of France). What sparked the interest of the anarchist movement was the riotous character of the demonstrations, the rejection of parties and unions and the class-related demands. However, it also opened a way to fascist dynamics, and it feels like it took us some time to find our own way in that movement (which is still not easy today).

J: Most of our comrades were pretty disdainful of the movement because they saw it as a protest of rednecks that were complaining because they wanted cheaper petrol. In Dijon, we were less than ten comrades at the first protest. Our friends quickly changed their mind when they saw how big the protests became.

R&R: The reactions among the revolutionary movement were very diverse. Depending on each person’s experiences, ideological bases or geographical location, some militants took part in the movement from the beginning, occupying roundabouts. Others, more skeptical and afraid to see the movement infiltrated and turned by the extreme right, waited a few weeks before joining it. Some are only there for moments of clashing (during protests) and take only little part in the organization of the movement. Finally, there certainly are those who, in a very critical way, require a firmer political coherence and do not participate at all.

Enkapuzado: Over here, we hear that this movement claims no attachment to any political party or trade union, as if it emanated from some general weariness towards social misery and a rejection of traditional politics. Do you think this might be “fertile ground” to propagate anarchist ideas and practices?

T: Definitely. A large part of this movement carries this rejection, and has affirmed it since the very beginning. There is actually a lot in common between the Yellow Vests and anarchist militants: the rejection of the government, of political parties, of trade unions and other “social partners” (considered as “intermediary bodies” that are supposed to defuse any revolt and to soothe the relations between the State and protesters); and, of course, the recourse to direct action. The movement exists through illegal acts, going from symbolically blockading roundabouts to burning down a prefecture/police Department. These actions have been carried out since November 2018, and are as numerous as they are diverse.

J: The movement defines itself as such. The “leaders”, or those that are called that way by the media, don’t behave according to the way the institutions would have hoped. The government doesn’t have any partners with whom to dialogue, like with the unions, and so they don’t have anyone to relay the calls for calm and dialogue. Of course these are fertile grounds for our ideas and practices, because everyone understands that by attacking the symbols of capitalism (even they aren’t described as such) or by blocking the economy (by barricading Paris on Saturday afternoons), you’ll be taken seriously. After that, either they send the cops or they answer your demands. For now, the State has always sent the cops, which has at least helped us spread our ideas.

E&L: In Toulouse, the links between the anarchist movement and Gilets jaunes are realized mostly through anti-repression frameworks and forms of action. For example, we noticed it was pretty hard to bring about “fundamental” political questions.

Despite a disrupted relation to the “political”, a large portion of the movement still claims the movement as “apolitical”. And so, as much as there are some opportunities for propaganda leading to interesting discussions, we sometimes run into a wall where our texts and leaflets are perceived as “too radical” or as showing a will to divide.

R&R: As for us, we could say it’s “fertile ground” for propagating our ideas and our practices, because the spokespeople were quickly removed. The modes of action that are used (sabotaging speed cameras, direct action, clashing with the police) also confirm this. Then, as for the modes of organization, apart from social media, which are not really our thing, there have been general assemblies of nearly 300 people since the start of the movement. One of those took place in a migrants’ squat (the “squat du Marais”, which houses 200 to 250 people). Certain contacts taken with the first Gilets jaunes led to the organization of that assembly and, from the start of it, solidarity with the foreigners who are mistreated by the French state was put forth.

Enkapuzado: We also felt a nice overflowing of the movement which translated into direct actions that targeted material symbols of the state and of the capital, in the streets of big cities but also all over France. We can imagine that the media and the government tried to spin this violence to divide the movement into the “good-citizen demonstrators” and the “rioters”. What effect did that have inside the social movement and on the relationship between the anarchists and the Yellow Vests?

T: Much like on most other subjects, there is no consensus among the Yellow Vests. As in every revolt, the State and its allies described the movement as a scandal, criticizing the rebels’ violence without ever talking about the day-to-day social violence that caused the revolts. The president, Macron, his first minister Edouard Philippe and the Minister of Interior, Christophe Castaner, were relentless in smearing the “bad Yellow Vests”. Same thing goes for the media: a number of journalists, politicians and experts called for the repression to be toughened.

Of course, it’s much easier to openly proclaim, in front of an assembly of 80 people or in front of a TV camera, that one is against the protesters’ violence. On the other hand, it’s much harder to describe why we think it’s right and just to smash a ministry’s door down, to throw stones at polices, to loot a luxury boutique or to burn a cop car.

As anarchists, it’s very important to address this issue with pertinent arguments, to affirm direct action as a means of struggle, whatever the alleged degree of violence.

R&R: From the beginning, in certain cities, a person who would dress in black and wear a mask risked expulsion from the protests. Today, the black blocs are more easily accepted and sometimes celebrated on Facebook or during protests. But it has become evident that the so-called “professional rioters” who get arrested, brought up for immediate trials and sometimes convicted are actually, very often at least, working-class people who are not at all used to collectively expressing their anger by destroying a bank window here or throwing paving stones at the cops there. That could also partly explain why the movement still lives on today, when there has been considerable destruction of the symbols of state and capitalism every Saturday for several months now, in several cities across the country.
So the mixing during protests between on the one hand inexperienced Gilets jaunes and on the other militants more accustomed to destroying what oppresses them, went quite well from our perspective.

E&L: Even though it’s not that clear, we can see that a part of the movement describes itself as “citizenist” and another part claims solidarity with the diversity of tactics in the movement. For instance, during Act XII, some anti-riot Gilets jaunes went to meet the mayor of Toulouse to negotiate an itinerary for the march and declare the demonstration. Fortunately, that was hugely criticized and only 30 people showed up to their protest. This initiative came mainly from the storekeepers. In the end, the attempt at dividing the movement failed completely here. In court, the people who were arrested usually take responsibility and own up to their actions, both criticizing the justice system and claiming their participation in the movement. Similarly, most of the people who were imprisoned show solidarity with the movement as a whole, by maintaining anti-division positions and solidarity with the movement despite sentences which are often heavy. Starting from the organisational framework against the repression attacking the Gilets Jaunes, some anarchists are trying to bring forward the question of prison in general, by breaking down the specificity of solidarity with only the political prisoners. As for the media, we can see a rejection of the bourgeois/mainstream press as a whole, both in words and in action: journalists who were thrown out of the protests or media headquarters attacked. This mistrust of the media stems in particular from the image that the media conveyed about “rioters” [casseurs] and about the population’s supposed contempt for the movement. Concerning the attacks themselves, it is clear that the targets accepted by everyone are the banks, insurance companies and more and more the real estate agencies. But there remains reluctance and division regarding street furniture (bus stops, advertising billboards,…) and the practice of selfdiscount/looting in stores.

J: From what I’ve heard in the assemblies I’ve attended, the Yellow Vests don’t distinguish between themselves and the “rioters”. For them, everyone remains a gilet jaune and the different forms of practices and actions are complementary. This pretty quickly became the common discourse here and that’s really good news.

Enkapuzado: We can imagine that among anarchists there are also different ways to take part in the movement, could you tell us which is yours and why?

J: I went to the first protest to observe, because I saw this thing becoming bigger and bigger on the internet and in the media, and because most of the comrades presented this as something the fascists were going to hijack, so I was both scared and at the same time, I didn’t believe that would happen. So I went to the protest. And it was the biggest protest I had ever seen in Dijon. 10,000 people, and the Yellow Vests announced that they wanted to go onto the highway, so the prefecture/police Department closed the highways to cars so that we could go protest. The crowd refused to go there, they discussed the matter and said “we want to march in the city, we’ll show them what it’s like when we’re angry”.

T: It took me longer than most to figure out that this movement carried an insurrectional tide, and that it was going to go far beyond the issue of gas taxes. But since the beginning of December, I’m in it 100%!

However, a certain confusion reigns amongst the Yellow Vests movement’s ideas and perspectives. This is due to the originality of the movement’s composition: there are mostly people who hate the system and the bourgeoisie, sometimes named “oligarchy”, there are a lot of self-proclaimed “apolitical” or “apartisan” people, and there are also a lot of politicized people, from anarchists and antifa to the far right, alongside members of different political parties (sovereignists/nationalists and/or far-left). Because of this, I decided it was important to actively participate in the political debate inside the movement, which meant attending the different assemblies, distributing pamphlets and writing on the walls… Well, it’s not as if I don’t “normally” do this, but I just felt like it was very important to do this during this movement.

E&L: A presence in the streets for one, to shout slogans, to mess with fascists and to be part of the direct actions. In a more organized way, it seemed maybe more “simple” to get into the anti-repression framework by organizing a turning presence/hotline for the friends and families of inmates, writing letters for imprisoned people and distributing legal advice in leaflets or workshop.

A: What I think is essential to understand is that an overwhelming majority of the Gilets jaunes are first-time protesters. For most of them, this was the first time that they ever occupied or blocked anything, that they acted outside the law. This appears clearly in the naivety with which they faced police and judiciary repression. The numbers are hard to check but there were, for December only, over 4,000 arrests, at least 200 prison sentences, systematically coupled to provisions banning them from protesting for three years (that is unprecedented in France, but it seems to be just a beginning).

Among the convicted people, almost everyone had a blank record and was convicted based only on their own confessions. Like: “yes, I threw a bottle at the cops because they hit us for no reason, I was only defending myself”, etc. When we’re aware of the justice system’s reaction to procedures which are, most of the time, devoid of any material evidence, we understand better the naive nature of such confessions.

R&R: Where we live, we have been quite lucky. Of course, the identitarians and other mindless little fascists participated in the movement (blockades, demonstrations, etc.) but they were never numerous enough to actually initiate anything or to influence any political orientation locally. We called them out soon and they had to keep an even lower profile than they already had for the bulk of the Gilets jaunes. Also, the organization arose without any leader or spokesperson, horizontally in general assemblies with various committees (anti-repression, actions, communication, perspectives, street-medics).

Enkapuzado: After almost three months of a social movement which doesn’t seem to be running out, what are the perspectives? Quickly, seen from here, the extreme-right seems less and less present. Does this mean there is a seizing of the movement by the unionist left? How do the anarchist Yellow Vests stand on, for example, the candidacy of a Gilets jaunes list for the European elections?

T: Of course, we must talk about the far-right. Many far-right groups are still present. Last Saturday (February 9), antifa and fascists clashed in Lyon, and the fascists were routed, despite being very well established in the city. The previous week, the Yellow Vests had already kicked fascists out of the protest in Paris. Similar scenarios happened in Bordeaux and other cities over the past few weeks. However, it’s still too early to conclude that the far-right has been totally kicked out of the movement. The unionist left has started to show up in the demonstrations, but remains far behind in terms of its [implication/significance], and the Yellow Vests continue to express their strong distrust of trade unions.

A number of anarchists involving themselves in the Yellow Vests movement push forward the ideas of self-determination, and horizontal and decentralized organization, through the form of assemblies, and try to organize these assemblies at a higher level whilst always relying on the local assemblies. On the other hand, the demand for the RIC (Citizen’s Initiative for a Referendum) is perceived as a means to calm the revolt by creating an illusion of popular power through the possibility of participating in thematic votes. In the first case, there are principles of self-determination that don’t need a State or any form of political hierarchy. In the second, there would be a renewal of socially reformist relations with the same forms of political campaigns (with all the usual problems of funding, mediatisation and brainwashing typical of our Spectacular-market society) to push us to vote “yes” or “no” for a given proposition, with the State giving the final say.

E&L: We can also note that in the beginning, the Gilets jaunes seemed pretty angry when fascists were physically thrown out of protests, always with that argument that “there’s no point in being radical” and that it would only divide the movement. On that level, things started to change when the Maoists were attacked by fascists who were making Nazi salutes. It’s kind of reassuring to see the emergence of some limits to a democratic principle that claims to be absolute and stronger than anything, even though it’s still not enough and we’d like to see some other lines or perspectives appear, that would be politically clearer. That’s the scary thing about this movement, the lack of political perspectives per se, other than “Macron démission” (“Macron, resign!”). Everything seems to centre around common practices and the fear of division. There also appears to be fewer occupied roundabouts and more than a few Gilets jaunes start to be discouraged among certain committees. In general, the unionist left seems at a loss with partly failed attempts at a general strike and attempts at attending Gilets jaunes general assemblies.

A: Since the beginning of February, the counter-revolutionary forces have been working at full capacity. The administration, seeing the impossibility of managing the movement through recuperation, decided to go with plain repression. We’d just never seen that, not even in 1968, according to the elders. The numbers increase day by day but roughly: 3,000 gravely injured; 22 eyes lost (the majority of which belonging to outright pacifists!); 5 hands ripped off (by the infamous GLI-F4 grenades, which contain TNT); 6,000 arrests since November, 5,000 people in police custody, at least 2,000 sentences (a lot of trials still haven’t taken place yet), 250 prison sentences (often for things like transporting swimming goggles…). Add on top of that the new “anti-rioter” law, which has been ready for 10 years but that no previous government had dared pass, and for good reason: it allows for and organizes the preventive arrest of anyone suspected by the State from, maybe, one day, inshallah… committing an act of violence. It’s really like Minority Report in Voltaire’s country.

The repression is so high that we no longer even manage to have a reliable count locally, for our small town: more than 250 people arrested, 140 legal proceedings including 50 trials, at least 12 Yellow Vests in prison, more than 35,000 euros in fines… The two heaviest offenders in France are from Caen, with sentences of 3 years and 3 months, and 3 years, including 6 months suspended. This police and judicial attack, against people unfamiliar with militancy and for the most part precarious, will have at least had the effect of raising a general questioning of state violence. We have seen protestors calling for the ban of LBD-40 (ex-Flashball). Recently, too, an emerging demand has been for an amnesty for all imprisoned Yellow Vests.

J: In the Yellow Vests assemblies, there are very few discussions on the[European] elections, or none. And that’s pretty reassuring.

We hope it’s not going to stop.

With the repression and all the rest, we’ll see how it’s going to go.

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